Counseling: A stigma for South Asians

            Whenever we hear that so and so went to see a therapist/counselor/psychologist, the first thought that comes into our minds is “Oh my God! He went psycho!” or “Wonder what made her go see a psychologist, has to be her crazy husband” etc. Such comments and thoughts are quite common in all cultures and societies regardless of the region or continent. In the West, seeking the help of an outsider is more common and is promoted a lot whenever close friends or relatives find themselves unable to provide the “right” kind of advice or help. However, such is not the case in South Asian communities that are a part of the Western population.

With a Pakistani background I noticed that there aren’t that many South Asian counselors in the field or even if there are, they cater to the Western population or they don’t have the means to reach out to their own communities and people. During my Masters program I read research articles and papers that were specific to the South Asian people (countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka). Majority of them stated that South Asian people tend to avoid seeking the help of a psychologist/counselor and tend to solve their own problems. They tend to seek help from their elders (nothing wrong there) or their friends (again nothing wrong) but tend to avoid going to seek professional help. One research article even stated that South Asians see counseling as “airing their dirty laundry in public,” which of course is a big no-no in the community. If word got out that your friend or your sister/brother or even one of your parents was going to see a “shrink” it’ll be headline news in the community. Everyone would look at you differently and be talking behind your back. And of course not to mention the therapist would be spreading gossip and rumors about your family’s issues and how they’re all so messed up! These and many other similar thoughts must have come into your head once in a while if you encountered such news.

However, getting trained and educated in this field and now interning has shown and taught me a lot. There are laws that protect the clients and safeguard their information. There are organizations and agencies (American Psychological Association, American Counselors’ Association etc.) that promote these laws and rules. There are ethics codes that every counselor/therapist/psychologist/psychiatrist has to abide by. The counselor/therapist cannot discuss any information disclosed during a session even with the parents of an 18 year old without his/her written consent; let alone spread gossip about their clients in their community. South Asian people need to realize that these services are there to be availed especially in this region of the world. Western countries for example, emphasize so much more on the importance of maintaining mental health as much as physical health. People need to realize that it’s better to seek help from an outsider rather than keeping things inside. Because we all know that if feelings and emotions are kept inside they are bound to boil over and the situation could go from bad to worse.

Other misconceptions are that therapists/psychologists won’t understand where the South Asian client is coming from; or that they won’t be able to relate to the culture which is almost an exact opposite to the Western culture. This is an absolute myth. With the Western population becoming diverse day by day, therapist/psychologists and even doctors are being trained to deal with issues relating to multiculturalism. Undergraduate and graduate programs have specific courses that are required for students to take and even to get a license to practice in any US state one has to complete multi-cultural training and coursework. So it is absurd to think and believe that these professionals won’t be able to help you with your issues/problems. An obvious obstacle for many South Asians is also how to pay for the services because it is costly and majority of them don’t have health insurance coverage for mental health. There are counselors/therapists who use the sliding scale. This means that the payment per session will be decided based on the client’s annual income and this makes it easier for the client to pay out of pocket even. One can google the term “sliding scale” and get more information. There should be no shame attached to seeking outside help.

South Asians need to realize that there are opportunities in the Western countries that can be availed to promote and enhance their mental health just as they spend time and money on their physical health.  A sound and healthy mind means a healthy body and a long life.

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